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TBI hoping scientific advances can shed light on cold cases

The TBI is looking to take advantage of breakthroughs in forensic genetic genealogy testing to determine the identities of human remains discovered as recently as 2018 and as far back as 46 years ago.

In some cases, according to the TBI, despite the best efforts of investigators, the identities of individuals who are found deceased remain unknown. With few leads to pursue, investigators say the cases often grow cold. However, over the last several years, law enforcement agencies across the country have seen measurable success in submitting skeletal remains of unidentified individuals for forensic genetic genealogy testing.

In 2022, the Tennessee General Assembly recognized the need for specialized testing to fund a DNA cold case initiative, and approved one-time funding of $100,000. The funding is specifically being used for specialized forensic genetic genealogy testing in TBI cold cases in which the skeletal remains of a victim have not been identified.

Fourteen potential TBI cases involving unidentified human remains initially met the criteria for the initiative. In December, agents submitted a portion of the skeletal remains of the victims in ten of those cases to Othram Inc., a private lab based in Woodlands, Texas, to conduct the DNA extraction and sequencing process. 

The agency says its “mission with this initiative is simple,” to determine the identities of the victims so that investigators can develop information and potential leads about the circumstances leading to each person’s disappearance and death.

In August of last year, the efforts of TBI, Orthram and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification led to the identification of two previously-unidentified sets of human remains found decades ago in East Tennessee.

On April 3, 1985, skeletal remains were found in the Big Wheel Gap area of Elk Valley in Campbell County. Forensic anthropologists determined that the skeletal remains were those of a white female, likely between the age of 10 and 15. However, investigators could not determine her identity, and she became affectionately known as ‘Baby Girl.’ In 2007, a sample of her remains was submitted to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) in hopes of identifying the victim. A DNA profile was developed for the victim and entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) as well as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System in hopes that she would eventually be identified.

In 2013, a TBI agent and intelligence analyst revisited the case and began searching for new leads regarding the girl’s identity. It would be nine more years before they received a break in the case.

Last year, working with the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department, a sample of the child’s remains was sent to Othram, a private laboratory that analyzes human DNA. There, scientists conducted forensic genetic genealogy testing. In June, Othram provided a possible relative connected to the child who was living in Indiana. Using that information, a TBI intelligence analyst located potential family members in the Lafayette, Indiana area. A TBI agent made contact with those individuals and confirmed they had a family member go missing from that area in 1978. With the assistance of the Lafayette, Indiana Police Department, agents were able to obtain familial DNA standards for possible siblings of the girl, which were submitted to the TBI Crime Lab in Nashville for entry into CODIS.

In August of 2022, the authorities positively identified ‘Baby Girl’ as Tracy Sue Walker, who went missing from the Lafayette, Indiana, area in 1978.

In September 1996, TBI agents were requested to assist the Grainger County Sheriff’s Office in investigating the discovery of human remains that were found by hunters in a wooded area just off Dale Road in the Powder Springs section of Grainger County. Based on evidence found at the scene, the case was ruled a homicide. With assistance from the University of Tennessee Anthropology Department, the remains were determined to be those of a female who was believed to be 30-40 years old. However, investigators could not determine the individual’s identity, and she was listed as a Jane Doe.

In 2018, a sample of the woman’s remains was submitted to the UNTCHI. A DNA profile was developed for the victim and also entered into CODIS. In 2019, agents were notified of a possible match. The match returned to a woman living and residing in Knoxville. After making contact with the woman, agents learned she had a missing twin sister. To determine if the Grainger County Jane Doe was the missing sister of the Knoxville woman, additional DNA samples were collected from her and another family member and submitted to UNTCHI for further analysis. In August of last year, agents received confirmation that the DNA profile was that of 38-year-old Brenda Clark, who was reportedly last seen by family in 1996.

Investigators are still investigating their deaths and if you have any information on either of these cold cases, please call 1-800-TBI-FIND.

Below is a list of the cases submitted for testing, along with information about the date and location each unidentified victim was found.

The TBI will update the list as new information is developed.

SEXRACEDATE FOUNDCOUNTYESTIMATED AGE RANGE
MaleWhite12/2/1977Johnson51-60
FemaleWhite10/21/1981Cheatham14-17
FemaleWhite8/5/1983McMinn20-30
MaleBlack8/26/1983Cumberland15-20
FemaleWhite4/2/1985Cheatham30-40
MaleWhite10/1/1985Loudon51-60
MaleWhite8/24/1986Claiborne30-40
MaleWhite4/7/1988Hickman22-35
MaleHispanic8/9/1999Cocke25-29
MaleWhite5/18/2018Dickson47-67

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